Sunday, January 17, 2010

What's a Monday For?

On January 1, New Year's Day, our Guesthouse closed for a 2-week respite period for our community. We've had this break for many years. Very few guests would be coming during this time in any case, and we need to get rested from the pace of the Christmas season and of our Guesthouse ministry in general. These "sabbath" periods are really important to us and they enable us to continue our ministry of hospitality at the pace at which we normally operate.

While this time is not a vacation, it is one in which things are definitely slowed down. We have a relaxed schedule of services in the Church, and we cook for each other, since our chef is away during this period. There's time for seeing friends, for taking extra naps or for extra prayer. Of course, many of us also use the time to catch up on neglected work and other projects, and therein lies the big problem with this whole enterprise of work and time off.

This sabbath rhythm seems to be important for human beings. The Jews usually get the credit for inventing a regular weekly calendar with a day of rest every seventh day. Of course there were "days off" in the lives of people before this observance became widely known, but these times were usually attached to religious feasts scattered through the year or to things like Fairs and local community observances, and were usually irregular. The Jews were thought by many of the people among whom they lived to be very curious folk indeed for insisting on a regularly scheduled day when no work was done.

But somewhere along the line people began to notice the benefit on many levels, physical, mental and spiritual, of taking a regular free day, and the practice is now nearly world-wide. Indeed, we take it for granted in our society that not only one, but two free days are necessary. The rhythm is firmly established. But so are the various problems that were being noticed as far back as the writings in the Bible.

For one thing, when it comes to making money, it's hard to stop. It was hard to stop in the days of the Biblical prophets and it's hard to stop now. The Prophets railed against commerce on the Sabbath and the Church forbade it in a number of ways through the centuries, with varied degrees of success. Hardly anyone rails these days, at least in this country, but there are countries in Europe which have very firmly resisted the move to have stores open 24/7, and who see their time with family and friends as crucial enough to be worth a day a week. Sabbath is there precisely to keep the addiction to work, which is universal, from completely taking over the human race. But maintaining it takes vigilance. To have a day devoted to not working doesn't come naturally to most of us, and unless we watch it we find ourselves using our weekends and other free times for catching up on work that we didn't get done earlier (due, of course, to the amount of time we feel we have to give to our work).

It's always good to remember the Biblical Sabbath and what is permitted on the Sabbath day: worship, socializing and study. That's it. Not much else is included. How many of us, monks included, keep a sabbath like that?

So those of us in the Holy Cross community have found that we need to have regular times when we are attentive to our schedule and its effect on us. We work hard. Our public schedule lasts from 7:00 am until 9:00 pm, and many of us are up much earlier in the day for prayer. We have a demanding ministry in our guesthouse which has grown substantially in recent years. While this is cause for celebration on a number of levels, the increasing number of guests makes larger and larger demands on us - physically, mentally and spiritually. We are involved with our guests to an extent that is unusual in monastic communities and we have to take that seriously. Each time the numbers of people in the Guesthouse has grown substantially we have discovered that we have to make adjustments in our schedule for private time so that we get enough 'sabbath' time to be able to do our ministry well.

Our present schedule is the result of this dialogue between our work and our need for freer time.

Our Guesthouse is closed one day a week: usually on Mondays.
We are also closed for a month in the late summer - from late July to late August.
We close for the first two weeks in January and a few briefer periods, like the five days following Easter and a couple of days after the Order's annual meetings in June.

All of this is to enable us to do the work of being monks: to pray well, and to minister well. And it's pretty important. On the rare occasions when we don't get our regular weekly sabbath day, all of us notice how our energy for prayer and our zest for our ministry suffer. In weeks like that we have had what have come to be known as "rolling days off" - that is, a couple of us will be free of work on various different days of the week. It helps, but it's not the same and it doesn't refresh us like the Monday sabbath. We need a day to be closed. We need a day when things are quiet and we can be assured of having the place to ourselves, and when we can enjoy our place and each other. It's crucial to being able to live the lives we have been called to live.

Everyone, including our community, needs periodically to evaluate how sabbath is incorporated into our lives: time for worship, socializing and study. We need especially to look at the compromises we make in the time that has been set aside. The Jewish devotion to the Sabbath is sometimes criticized for regulations that are extraordinarily minute and sometimes seem silly to the rest of us. But those regulations are there because the pressure behind our need to disregard sabbath time is so relentless. And disregarding sabbath means paying a high price. It means neglecting some of the things that keep us healthy and human.

It's worth thinking about. It's worth it for monks and for everyone else. In fact, just writing this makes me think that I need to give some attention to how I am going to use my Monday time this week.

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